Mistletoe the Line
Yesterday decided to visit Tenbury Mistlefest – Britain’s only mistletoe festival. This came about when the old mistletoe auctions were under threat. They had taken place in Tenbury for a hundred years. Tenbury mistletoe is exported all over the country and is renowned for its quality.
I waited to see what the weather was like before committing to going. I checked the BBC weather on my laptop and the forecast looked good – at least for the first half of the day. I decided to risk it and seize the day – I chucked what I needed in a daysac, togged up and set off. The run up to Tenbury through the Welsh Marches was beautiful in the winter sun – I felt glad to be alive and living in such a lovely country. This part of the land feels very special – an artery of quintessential ‘Englishness’, deep England, ironically on the border of Wales – and originally of course belonging to Wales. I can see why Tolkien was so inspired by it – it did have a Tolkienesque quality to it. Deep wooded vales, timber-framed houses, mysterious knolls, brooding hills – old Brythonic bears, licking their wounds. I made good time on my Triumph Legend – the roads were clear and it was sunny and dry. The 85 miles passed in a pleasant couple of hours. It was only when I reached the Rose and Crown, just outside Tenbury – where the druids were gathering for the procession – that I realised I had left without my wallet! I had about a seven pound’s worth of change in my pocket – enough for lunch and not much else. I put this problem to one side – there wasn’t much I could do about it – as the procession was about to start. There was a brief briefing in the pub and I was designated ‘hop carrier’ in the ceremony – my role was to pass around a bottle of beer!
About twenty of us set off from the Rose & Crown carpark – some in full robes. Suzanne from Cransfield Bardic Arts led the way, leading us in a chant – (‘All Hail the Mistletoe, On the sacred tree does grow, Our blessing we bestow, All upon the Mistletoe!’) which we sang in a half-hearted slightly embarrassed English way as we crossed the bridge from Shropshire to Worcestershire into the town. The high street was lined with stalls – a Christmas market to coincide with this, the biggest day in Tenbury’s calendar. It wasn’t exactly buzzing, but the atmosphere was congenial. We passed a couple playing medieval instruments, all dressed up. They attempted to join our procession, but we were walking too fast! In previous years, the mistletoe ceremony had taken place in the heart of the town, but this year it took place in the gardens, under a lime bearing mistletoe overlooking the river Teme, flowing vigorously after the heavy rains recently – very much like Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’. (Tenbury has been badly affected by the floods in recent years).
The previous Tuesday a small contingent of the local druids (Cornovii Tribe) went to the Mistletoe Auctions and performed a discreet ceremony incognito (plain clothes druids!). In other years this has been more visual – in full regalia – to varying degrees of reception. Some traders claimed the blessed mistletoe did especially well, whileas others disagreed!
We gathered in a circle by the Mistletoe Foundation banner, as a small crowd of curious and amused public looked on. Suzanne had a gentle touch and conducted the ceremony with grace and humour. Although the celebrants had to read from scripts it was done from the heart, albeit in a slightly ramshackle way. I did my bit – the ale is normally passed in a horn, but because of health and safety they were forced to use plastic cups – but they were forgotten! And so I had to simply pass around the bottle of local ale (Hobson’s Town Crier), saying to people to drink at their own risk – all the druids did! Folk were asked if they wishes to say anything about mistletoe – I said: ‘Our ancestors called this All Heal – may it bring healing to all who need it, especially to the planet – and may it bring wisdom to those in Copenhagen who are deciding the fate of the planet.’ After we blessed the mistletoe with water, fire, hops and apple everyone was offered a sprig of mistletoe. At the climax of the ceremony, the mistletoe was cast into the Teme. Suzanne said after: ‘words cannot describe how it felt to see the mistletoe taken by the river. So I won’t try.’
We then wended our back to the Rose and Crown for lunch. It was nice to chat to the celebrants. Later that evening there was going to be an ‘eisteddfod’ in the lovely old pub, but unfortunately I had to give it a miss, as I had a certain rendezvous with a troubadour! Saying farewell to these new friends, I left the warm embrace of the pub, with its crackling fire and good beer and put out into the drizzle of the chilly afternoon. I went back into the town to look around. By now it was grey and miserable. It was about 2.30pm – the crowning of the mistletoe queen wasn’t until 4pm (I missed this, although I did catch a glimpse of her, hanging about with her mates, browsing the stalls). I didn’t fancy hanging around for a couple of hours in the rain, so I decided to head back and make the most of the remaining light. I rang my friend Miranda in Stroud to say I would be passing her place around 4ish and would it be okay to drop by for a cuppa … this turned out to be a wildly optimistic ETA and travel plan!
Lighting the Darkness
Garden of Awen on Sunday at Chapel Arts Centre was a magical banquet of bardism in the heart of Bath. To celebrate the solsticey theme of ‘Lighting the Darkness’ I had gathered a constellation of shining talent: sublime wordsmiths from Stroud, a jazz duo and a Bard of Bath, a troubadour from Paris and a Russian ballet dancer/poet from Australia.
This was the second Garden I had organised with playwright, novelist and all round Mr Fix it, Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson, whose Icepax Productions made it look so professional.
After a much needed lazy Sunday chilling out at home with my guest Paul we made our way to the venue laden with musical instruments, books, CDs and stuff! Svanur was there, co-ordinating the sound checks and attending to final details – he’s a wizard!
I MCed the night, introducing each act, assisted by ‘the lady with the satin larynx’ Anna D. – who recited the odd arcadian quote to punctuate the proceedings. First up was Jay Ramsay, poet of the heart, and Hereward on percussion – performing a deeply felt set of beautiful poems. Next was fellow Fire Springer, Kirsty Hartsiotis, who did a rivetting version of Pandora’s Box. Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath, followed – with an impressive triptych of poetry and song. We ended the first half with jazz duo Venus Eleven. Tracey Kelly ethereal vocals, accompanied by some mellow guitar enchanted the audience.
After the break, we had extraordinary poet, Gabriel Millar – our third guest from Stroud. She delivered a wise and spell-binding set of poetry. And then we had Irina Kuzminsky, the Russian-emigre Australia ballet dancer/poet, who performed her blistering ‘Dancing with Dark Goddesses’ set: a performance of complete commitment, passion and technical brilliance. Hereward and Jay came back on for some drumming to warm us up for the final act, Paul Francis, Le Troubadour, who ended the evening with a splendid set of songs that took the audience to an absinthe-soaked Left Bank for an all but brief time. Paul ended with a personal request – his magnificent song, The Sailor and the Magician, which has a chorus of fine sentiment: ‘May the Peace in East; Peace in the South; Peace in the West by the river’s mouth; Peace in the North; Peace across the Land; Peace, Love and Harmony…‘ I’ll drink to that – and we did!
I ended the evening with a quote from Scottish novelist and playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie, who once said: ‘God gave us memories so that we might have Roses in December … ‘ I think all who came to the Garden that night left with a bouquet.
Cutting the Thorn
8th December 2009
Today I attended the annual cutting of the Glastonbury Thorn at St Johns, on the High Street. The Glastonbury Thorn is said to be a cutting from the very tree that apocryphally sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea – Jesus’s uncle or brother (according to the vicar of St John’s, David) – plunged into the good soil of Somerset (traditionally on Wearyall Hill – appropriately named, as his journey’s end) when he made landfall here after his long voyage from the Holy Land, with or without a certain young messiah under his care (a new film is coming out that explores this, ‘Did Those Feet in Ancient Times?’) All rather dubious, but a wonderful notion – Glastonbury is obviously very proud of its its famous ‘roots’: a headline on a newstand read ‘Did Glastonbury Druids Teach the Young Jesus?’! And the brush with fame, albeit on a merely national level, continues. Every year a sprig of this tree is sent to the Queen, who has it on her Xmas table at Sandringham (apparently it is sometimes spotted in the background of her Christmas Day broadcast).
Arriving in good time, I wandered up the High Street, browsing in the shop windows, until I was caught up in the ‘crocodile’ as hundreds of pupils from St John’s, St Benedict’s and St Dunstan’s converged in the grounds of the church, lining up in ranks of descending size in front of the Thorn. Local worthies were gathered in their finery. The town crier started proceedings in a typically stentorian manner, then Rev. David Mced the event, with contributions of cute songs from the local schools before the moment we had all been waiting for occurred. The ‘oldest pupil’ of St John’s cut the thorn, with a little assistance from the Town Crier and her mum. As the thorn sprig was held up, they were cheers – and the little girl, looking like a wee brownie in her pink woolly hat, beamed.
It was a heart-warming community event – a lovely way to mark the ‘first shoots’ of the festive season.
Here’s to a Merry Yule!